News 11.06.14

Lab Errors Send the Innocent to Prison

A recent investigation of the Houston Police Department crime lab revealed the disturbing news that negative drug tests were withheld from defendants until very recently despite the fact that prosecutors learned the true results several years ago.

The 

Houston Press

 reported that in recent months the Harris County District Attorney’s Office notified hundreds of convicted drug offenders that forensic lab reports confirm they were wrongly convicted. Letters which were mailed out to those who took plea deals for misdemeanor and felony drug possession revealed the news that prosecutors withheld in some cases, for a decade. There is even evidence that prosecutors were notified of the actual results before a plea deal even took place. This follows the notion we reported in 

yesterday’s blog post

 about the state wielding unchecked power during plea bargaining. 

 

Take, for example, a man who was charged on September 25, 2008 for possessing less than a gram of cocaine, a felony. Records indicate an HPD crime lab analyst sent prosecutors a letter on October 21, 2008 saying there was no evidence of a controlled substance. Still, the DA’s office struck a plea deal with the man on October 26, 2008 — one year in county jail. Anderson’s office sent the defendant a letter on August 5, 2014, informing him that he had been convicted in error.

According to the District Attorney’s office spokesman Jeff McShan, the issue was first discovered by late DA Mike Anderson shortly after he took office last year. When he passed away, the governor appointed Anderson’s wife to take his place. Nearly a year after her husband first discovered the mess, Mrs. Devon Anderson’s office began correcting the mistakes. McShan stressed that the cases were handled by previous district attorneys.

Meanwhile, the public defender’s office says it’s still scrambling to handle the influx of defendants trying to clear their records. “Obviously, if it’s a person’s only felony offense, there are very significant collateral consequences,” said Nicolas Hughes, an assistant public defender who’s been tasked with handling the cases. “It could have changed the trajectory of someone’s life.”

For instance, even a misdemeanor marijuana conviction can have life-altering ripple effects. Defendants could have been denied student loans. “There could be job consequences,” Hughes said. “What if someone had been an educator or something like that? Even a whiff of that could end somebody’s career.”

Hughes says he’s already overturned several cases. “I know it’s a big issue for these people who have gotten out of convictions,” he said. “It’s improved their lives.”

Of the more than 300 cases that Hughes says have come into his office in recent months, he places blame on the lack of protocol in place for what happens when a negative lab report comes back after someone’s already been convicted. 

Read the 

full article

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